Friday, December 12, 2014

Warlords of Draenor - The Project Manager's Addiction

Every WoW expansion pack that has been released over the past few years was shipped with its own personality.  Over the classic “vanilla” build of the game, Burning Crusade was markedly more difficult but had a lot of good content on your way to level 70 (not to mention replacing your epics on the first quest reward).  Wrath of the Lich Kingcame about and it was a far less challenging than its predecessor, but had what I consider to be some of the best endgame content raids in Ulduar and Icecrown Citadel.  It also brought the story full circle for those of us that nerded out on Warcraft III before Blizzard’s MMO days.  Cataclysm brought back the pure grind-it-out progression and the fall of Deathwing.  Mists of Pandaria?  Well, they had pandas and an eastern flair but I never got into it too deeply.

Now we’re a few weeks into Warlords of Draenor, the most recent expansion pack to the wildly popular World of Warcraft MMO.  And I’ll say it briefly before I get into the meat of this – I like it.  And it’s not wholly because of the content or of the throwbacks that will let you nerd out on character origins (like seeing Akama as a full on badass Exarch instead of an ubroken roaming Outland). This expansion answered the call for player housing from a lot of the fanbase, and they did it with style by implementing the garrison system.  I probably spend more time tending to my garrison and doing garrison-related quests than I do much else.  My main toon has been a level 100 for a week or so and I think I’ve only run 2 dungeons.  And there’s a reason…

My garrison is a giant project.  And one of my real life off-specs is project management.

The whole campaign starts with bringing people in from the Capital and creating a central outpost under your command to run operations in Draenor for whichever faction you represent – be it the Alliance or the Horde – when you have to sign off on the plans from the first buildings.  And from that point of initial construction, 100% of the mechanics involve running things (albeit in a much more toned down way but you know) in any sort of project.  As you level up more things open up to you in terms of crafting, garrison resource generation, heroes from around the land that follow your lead and run missions for you, and how much time and money it’s going to take to get it all done and customize it to exactly what you want.

(In other words, I just listed timelines, stakeholders, project resources, personnel, production/manufacturing, and change controls).

The player picks what buildings they want to be constructed to produce items or unlock certain rewards.  And other buildings are there to provide resources to get there.  My tannery lets my leatherworking department make stuff for me as well as higher grade materials for crafting and selling high end moneymakers.  My inn is a recruiting place where I can interview potential followers.  Hell there’s even a shack for fishing.  Everything can be laid out (almost) exactly like you want it.  And there’s a panel to track all of it.

And then… there’s the garrison missions.

Every mission that’s run has a reward, but they all have a set resource cost and personnel cost.  When you see a slate of available missions it’s up to you to figure out which skillset goes where, how long it will take and whether the cost and time is worth the reward.  Because nobody wants to wait 8 hours for just a tiny handful of coin.  I mean it’s insulting really.

Take the mission “The Infernals’ Fury,” for instance.  To guarantee a win in 4 hours I need level 100 followers with skills to counter the following: Wild Aggression, Massive Strike and Deadly Minions.  As you can see my girl Qiana Moonshadow has wild aggression covered handily, but I’m short on the other two.  My Dwarven associates Delvar and Bruma are my go-to aces to deal with massive strike and deadly minions.  But here’s the problem – they’re on another mission that is taking forever.  And even while they’re spreading the word of badassery in my name, that doesn’t give me something as good as that armor enhancement token.  So I can’t do this one right now – and that’s called opportunity cost, kids.  When they get back they’ll be assigned here because it’s a more important reward.

I can always put in my junior team in though.  They have the same skills, but since they’re not maxed out, my chance of getting that token would drop.  I mean you don’t take Peyton Manning out of the game unless he physically can’t play, know what I’m sayin?

So if Burning Crusade brought the gear, Lich King brought the break, Cataclysm brought the grind, and Pandaria brought the… well, the furries – Warlords brings the project.  And I am loving every second of it.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Square-Enix trolls fans with Final Fantasy VII for the PS4

By now I’m going to guess that you’ve heard about the monkeyshines and shenanigans that occurred at the recent PlayStation Experience event.  But if not allow me to set the scene for you:

Our boy Shinji Hashimoto from Square-Enix comes out on stage to tell the audience something that many Final Fantasy fans have been clamoring for for almost 20 years –Final Fantasy VII, hailed by many RPG fans as one of the greatest games of all time, would be coming to the PlayStation 4.

If this is new to you then I know what you’re thinking kids – because I’m sure I was one of the many that did the same thing.  you’re replaying a next-gen version of the Bahamut ZERO summon in your head, trying to picture what the Gold Saucer would even look like, creating mental images of Midgar and that awkward Wall Market scene with Beautiful Bro.

But then reality sets back in.  Yes, Final Fantasy VII will be available for the PS4.  No, it is not going to be awesome.  It will be the same as the one released in 1997 – a port of the PC version of the game to be available in the spring of 2015.

We all got trolled.  Again.  And this time they did it to our faces in front of a huge hall full of people, getting them super excited then taking out their knees.  Here’s some video from Kotaku’s Fahey showing the presentation.

Now those of you that know me know how I feel about remakes in general – a lot of times to me they’re a cheap cash-grab with no discernible advantage to the older version outside of convenience to pick up some additional revenue to a market they haven’t sold to yet.  And in the process, while throwing away creativity and the opportunity to do something new for the fans, they repackage our childhoods and try to sell it back to us.  It happens all the time.

So you may be curious then – why this article about this recent event is getting my attention given this opinion of mine I’ve just shared.

Here’s the thing.  I’m not mad the remake isn’t happening.

I’m mad at how things have played out over the last decade or so in general, especially with this game company on remakes.  It was easy to remake the titles from the NES and SNES era – there’s something like 5 versions of Final Fantasy IV running wild over a number of consoles among a few others.  They’re decades old games remade with PSX graphics.  VIII’s on Steam and I’m not sure who really cares about a IX remake – and these are two additional Final Fantasy titles also originally released on the first PlayStation.

(S-E remakes for Android devices also have an always-on requirement, which already irk my ire, so this on top of that really sticks in my craw.  But that’s another story for another day.)

But for VII, they give fans hope.  In addition to the original game, Square-Enix developed an entire universe around Midgar, with spinoff games and video titles like Dirge of Cerberus, Crisis Core, Last Order, and topping them all off with the feature length Advent Children in 2005.  But it didn’t stop there.  In 2006 to show off graphical capabilities they released a technical demo for the PS3 engine (watch it here, it’s wonderful).  This demo featured the intro to Final Fantasy VII redone using the PS3 engine.  It was glorious.  Midgar looked great, the train details down to the sparks on the tracks were sharp, what we saw of Aeris was lovely, and Cloud’s eventual entrance on the train platform was done with style.


Square Enix showed us what one of the most revered games in modern history could look like, while having no intention of ever delivering.  We saw what could be, and the fact that they used that property for the demo sparked many rumors that a remake was in the works.  Since then, the game has been released in its original form on PSX, a 4-disc PC edition, a download on Steam, and playable on the PS3 through the PlayStation store.  Someone could have paid for 4 copies of the same game, with not much more than the addition of trophies and achievements added to their total gameplay experience.

Well I guess there is some sort of charm about huge pixels on TV’s sized like they are these days.
Still though.  Colossal who cares.

But we’ll never get delivery on the vision of the future Square-Enix had shown us with that demo.  They’ll continue to make money on every copy of this that was sold on multiple platforms from 1997 to today.  The game has still been wildly supported by its fanbase, some of who will buy every version of it out of loyalty and let’s be honest, to some extent mania.  Fans will keep assuming it’ll happen because Square-Enix keeps supporting the product and dropping hints unofficially while officially denying it.  For the same reason, Square-Enix will keep selling it.  And this dance will go on for a good long time.  And to think, this all would have never happened if only the PS3 was back-compatible.

Bottom line – if you’re waiting for a next-gen Final Fantasy VII remake, I wouldn’t hold my breath longer than a Knights of the Round summon.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Windows 10 Technical Preview So Far

A little while ago Microsoft released a technical preview for their newest operating system, Windows 10.  I got a chance to play around with it some and see what's new and improved over Windows 8.  Keeping in mind that an official release likely won't be until the middle of 2015, there's still a lot of time for things to change.  And if this turns out to be anything like the Windows 8 release process we still have the developer preview and consumer preview to come before an release candidate or RTM.  If you're interested in seeing how that process unfolded for Windows 8 in fact, you can check out my series on the Windows 8 RTM from 2012 here.

Personally, I never really had a problem with Windows 8 - it was a little different but to those that do the computer thing for a living the learning curve was fairly small.  But to a lot of Windows users, dealing with the new UI they introduced was a nightmare, and let's face it kids, to them that Start button was the truth.  They just didn't know it until the Metro UI Start Screen had replaced it.  The backlash was huge from users on both the home and enterprise sides, and being a professional nerd I was able to see the meltdown first hand by both sectors.  I watched home users stumble and fumble trying to deal with live tiles to find programs with, I kid you not, pure distress and pain in their voices like someone had just robbed them of a family heirloom.

Oh that start button.  It's like Windows users everywhere were collectively Gollum and that button was the damn precious.

As for the business side, IT shops were reluctant to say the least about putting 8 into play.  I myself said that there was no way would roll it out into my environment.  I even made sure the workstations I got on our last PC refresh were downgradable to 7.  I had visions of my users coming after me with torches and pitchforks, with calls and complaints to my team every 15 seconds - sad, tearful users murmuring "but... but how do i find mail?"  So this OS which was intended to bridge the gap between mobile and desktop never really got a good foothold.  No one really wanted it.  The start button became a turf war.  So naturally the biggest cosmetic change users will notice in Windows 10 is the return of -

<insert fanfare here>

The Start button

Start button lovers rejoice!  While it may be a little different than what you're used to, it's back with a couple of tweaks.  Instead of the full start screen, what they've done is given you two things side by side - a mini Windows 8 style start screen joined with the Windows 7 style start button.  And actually it works pretty great.

The settings allow for customization so that you can have as many (or as few) live tiles as you want on your start button, while displaying as many things as you want on the left side of the menu.  Apps that are frequently used will pop up there, along with any shortcuts you choose to add like Control Panel or Administrative Tools.  Right clicking the start button also gives you shortcuts to commands that are commonly used, like command prompt and computer management.

When adding live tiles (done through a simple drag and drop mechanism), you can still customize their size and with it how wide your start menu can get.  I would almost consider the live tiles portion of the start menu something like the notification bar on an android device, automatically updating and notifying users when something new is happening.  And if you're the type of user that's just a live tile glutton, you can actually add enough live tiles to extend your start menu all the way out to the right edge of your screen.

Now to be honest I kind of missed the Windows 8 start screen a little bit while starting my foray into 10.  It became one of those things I had gotten used to using that eventually found its way into my routine.  But I got over it pretty quickly.  I was never really one for menus anyway - I'm from the old school.  I grew up with Windows 3 and DOS 5, and do most things with shortcut keys, the run command and command prompt (oh that's right).  But for those of you (I'm sure the number is few) that prefer the start screen, all you have to do is change a setting, and clicking start brings back your full start screen.

I mean it is pretty.

The funny thing is though, while so many users reviled 8 for it's lack of a start button, the Windows 8 technical preview DID in fact have a start button option, which was able to be toggled on and off with a registry setting.  That registry key was removed by the time we got the consumer preview in 2012, which left more than a few IT pros (myself included) confused.  Strange decision on Microsoft's part, but one they're making up for now.

Virtual Desktops

They're called virtual desktops but don't get them confused with virtual machines.  What Windows 10 has done with this is added functionality to the alt+tab shortcut we all love so much to switch between running applications.  What's new though is what happens when you hit window+tab - it will again give you the option of switching between your active programs, but at the same time allow you to add a virtual desktop for some more space for more stuff.

I run 2 monitors and will never (ever) go back.  When I need extra desktop real estate without clutter I can drag stuff over to my 2nd monitor and still see everything clearly.  What virtual desktops do is allow a user to simulate that multi-screen environment on a single screen.  You're still only running one Windows session, but as if you have multiple desktops with different things on each screen.  For those of you that run Linux systems this works exactly like the multiple desktops in a KDE or GNOME setup.

So for example, in the screenshot I have here, window+tab allows me to see what I have running on my current desktop (we'll call it desktop 1), on which i've got my documents folder and the launcher (I was fixin' to play some Diablo III).  But it also gives me the option to switch to another desktop I have running (desktop 2), in which I'm browsing the internet in Google Chrome.  Or if I wanted to I could make a third virtual desktop for more space.

And to cut down on confusion, Windows also tells you what you have running in other desktops.  For example in desktop 1, Google Chrome is highlighted with a faint grey underline to tell me it's running elsewhere.

Compatibility (machine specs at end of article)

On my main rig*, so far I've found that if it works with Windows 8, it'll work with Windows 10.  The technical preview had no issue picking up all of the drivers for my devices from HP and nVidia, and worked with my motherboard without breaking a sweat.  The first thing that came up when I fired it up for the first time was a notice that there was a Windows Update available for current version drivers for all of my stuff - which is surprising, given my experiences playing with other OS previews and betas from big blue.

To test it further I installed some stuff I would normally use on my machine - namely the application and Diablo III.  Everything ran smooth with the settings turned all the way up, but there was some definite video lag and choppiness in animations when there was a lot of activity happening on the screen.  This doesn't happen when I'm running it through Windows 8.1. 

On my older Windows 7 laptop* though there were a few snags.  Radeon drivers gave me a bit of trouble installing the driver and Catalyst software, and some of the HP-specific stuff was hard to get without manually searching and trying to force Windows 7 drivers to work with 10 which were, well, not very friendly to say the least.  But that's older (well, old-ish) hardware, so I wasn't really surprised.

The Early Verdict

I like it and I like what it could potentially be.  For an early build, it looks like Microsoft has really focused on fixing the shortcomings of Windows 8 and trying to put out an operating system that has some appeal to all users, both desktop and mobile.  Which is good, because I was never on board with the "post-PC era" shtick I've been seeing everyone buying into for some time now.  It feels good on my main rig and I can still see using it on a Surface or other Windows tablet, so it looks like this could potentially deliver to both a good touch as well as a mouse and keyboard experience.  Then again I did say the same thing in my early Windows 8 impressions, and that did go, shall we say... awry.

As it presently stands I would consider this a definite upgrade for users running Windows 8 on a desktop, but wouldn't call it a necessary update for users running Windows 7.  Windows 7 is still in effect and a complete operating system that users are still crazy for, and with reason.  It's a solid OS both for home and business, and let's not forget that it rescued us from the beast that was Vista.  So far this technical preview has hit over 1 million downloads, so we'll see how this goes.  I'm sure they'll generate a lot of feedback to shape how these builds roll out. 

* Main rig test specs: ASUS Z87-Pro, i7-4770K, 8GB G.SKILL Ripjaws X, nVidia GeForce GTX 660 2GB, 1TB Western Digital Black
* Windows 7 laptop specs: HP dv6t quad, i7-2720M, 8GB DDR3, Radeon HD 7690M 2GB, 750GB HDD

Friday, September 26, 2014

Some Say Cosplayers are Ruining Con Sales, and Cons.

So I Read Sam MaggsMary Sue article about Denise Dorman (wife of Star Wars artist Dave Dorman) and how she posits that cosplayers and social culture at cons are killing sales for artists, and questioning why they even show up to cons anymore.

An excerpt:
"But today, I have something on my mind…something most comic book artists would never publicly reveal. However, I think it finally needs to be said aloud. We need to–as comic book convention exhibitors and comic book wives–finally crack the seal on this conversation. I invite any of you following me to respectfully discuss this issue. 
Privately, famed comic book industry personalities everywhere are discussing with each other whether to stop exhibiting at comic book conventions. There’s a fine line between being accessible to and pleasing the fans vs. LOSING MONEY at these conventions."

Sure, ok so artist sales are low.  Yes it's a probelem and I get it, but how are cosplayers specifically killing a Comic Con?  It's like half of my friends are being blamed for bad sales.

... I dunno, kids.

And the below was the ol' geek sector of the brain immediately spat out.  So I decided to quickly cobble this together in response. Enjoy.

** Pictures lifted from Gotham Spoilers.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Brown Americans [tf charts]

Today's chart was inspired by Representative Curt Clawson (R-FL).  Rep Clawson, upon meeting (and being introduced to, with title) Nisha Biswal and Arun Kumar.

The plot: Rep. Clawson spoke to these two fine brown people as if they were foreign Indian diplomats here for a visit.  He goes into a soliloquy about how much he loves India and would appreciate further cooperation with their government.

The twist: Biswal and Kumar are actually Americans, representing the departments of State and Commerce, confused and amused at the goings on.  Here's the video from, and they have more of the story here.

Oh right, then see comedian John Oliver's take from Last Week Tonight on it here.  His words basically reflected my entire thought process while watching the video above.


Thursday, July 3, 2014

The e-Sports Boy’s Club: Hearthstone, the IeSF and Gender Segregation

Blizzard's Hearthstone
I’m surprised at how long it takes for some companies to learn that the internet is a thing now, and that a good action should be executed before fan or customer backlash forces them to.  This is the case of the male-only championship policy of the International e-Sports Federation (IeSF), how it affected the actions of a Finnish qualifying tournament, and how the internet told them to knock that noise off.

Yesterday afternoon I read some disturbing details on the Hearthstone competition at the Finnish Assembly Summer 2014 eSports tournament coming up at the end of this month.

You had to have two things:

(1) Finnish citizenry
(2) A Y-chromosome

Yes you read that correctly – the Hearthstone tournament was classified as being for Finnish men only.  So all those ladies with their two X chromosomes were asked to hit the bricks.

The winner of this tournament would qualify for the IeSF World Championships later this fall, where they will be representing Finland in the contest.  So I get the part where you have to be a bona fide Finn to enter the digital ring here.  But why – why why why in seven hells weren’t women allowed to play?  It’s 2014, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why.

PC Gamer, who picked up and later confirmed this information from a member of the Reddit Hearthstone community named Karuta, seemed to be wondering the same thing.  So they asked Markus Koskivirta, the head admin for the Assembly Summer 2014 Hearthstone Qualifier:

"Your information is indeed correct, the tournament is open to Finnish male players only.  In accordance with the International e-Sports Federation’s (IeSF) tournament regulations, since the main tournament event is open to male players only. This is to avoid possible conflicts (e.g. a female player eliminating a male player during RO8) among other things."

Oh.  So that’s the issue.  The IeSF championships are men only.  So if a woman wins the Finnish tournament, then they wouldn’t be eligible to compete there.  Further, according to the IeSF’s site and Facebook event page, the IeSF even went as far as to have different games for different genders at the worlds.  Male competitors will be playing Hearthstone, Dota 2, Starcraft 2, and Ultra Street Fighter IV while the female competitors will be playing Starcraft 2 and Tekken Tag Tournament 2.  In this case, The organizers of Assembly Summer 2014 are doing it this way because of IeSF rules, and doing it under protest.

So to make it even worse, women were only to compete in 2 games at the championship level while the men’s division got 4.  And not only that, but while they will both be playing Starcraft 2, it won’t be together.

Naturally this caused some waves in the gaming community, as it damn well should. A number of users took the IeSF to task on their Facebook page, and received some answers explanations thinly sliced excuses for those asking questions.  Direct from their Facebook page:

"Let me elaborate a bit on the decision to create both male and female competitions. This decision serves two main goals of the IeSF: 
1 – promoting female players. We know that e-Sports is largely dominated by male players and females players are actually a portion of the overall player base. By hosting a female-only competition, we strive to promote female gaming on a global scale. 
2 – International standards. IeSF is very close to get e-Sports recognized as a true sports like it should be. Part of that efforts is to comply with the international sports regulations. For example, chess is also divided into male / female leagues.But, we want you to know that we listen to you, and appreciate your feedback! Our efforts does not clash with the community opinion – but on the contrary – we are here for the future of e-Sports and will do our best to promote it as best as we can.”


As I tried to bend my head around it all I could come up with were different ways of saying WTF:

Why is an all-female gaming competition the only way one can come up with to highlight and promote female gaming on a global scale?  By making it a different thing, what’s being said is that it’s different than men’s gaming, and in this particular case, unequal as well.  If equality was a factor to the IeSF, then there wouldn’t be male and female brackets in their Starcraft 2 contests.  But there are, and that’s absolutely absurd.  The one and singular reason I was able to come up with was that maybe some female gamers would be more open to joining all-female tournaments due to the boy’s club that is e-sports as a whole and the very real sexual harassment that happens in the gaming community. A lot of these cases began coming to light (well, really coming into light publicly) a couple years ago.  We remember Aris Bakhtanians’ creepy-as-sin antics at CrossAssault and his defense that sexual harassment was “part of the culture.”  And we all remember the steady stream of misogyny and vitriol flowing Anna Sarkeesian’s way just by merely suggesting that the design of female video game characters fit lazy stereotypes and tropes.  Last year Starcraft 2 player Eve retired and deleted her social accounts due to sexual harassment.  So there may be a lot of points leading to a women’s division being a logical thing to make women feel more comfortable at events.  But it still feels wrong.

Then Ben Kuchera over at Polygon actually summed up my thoughts on that far more eloquently than I could: “The onus is on YOU to make every player feel welcome, safe and invited.  Segregating the genders is evidence that you have failed at that job, or simply don’t feel you’re up to the task.”  I can’t really put it any better than that.  Now instead, IeSF had decided to lean into that image and strengthen it further.
Are they trying to do something like weight classes like there are in grappling sports? Is it to make eSports the “true sport” it deserves to be?  Well luckily I have some experience in grappling sports, so allow me some words on the matter.

e-sports. real sports. not exactly the same, kids.
Here’s the thing about e-sports and (hell I’ll say it, someone should) real sports.  They’re different.  I’m into martial arts and have been so competitively in the past, where we’re divided by gender and weight class in competition.  The last time I competed (many moons ago) I fought heavyweight, meaning everyone i was matched up with was like me - men above 219 lbs.  Why?  Because that’s fair, and a fair contest is what it’s all about.  Making me square off against a lightweight weighing in at 130 is crazy, because the odds would be ridiculously stacked in my favor on size and weight.  The thing with games on the other hand, especially one like Hearthstone, is that it’s purely a mental exercise in strategy.  Hearthstone is just about strategy and fun, where a player gets out the effort they put in.  There’s no muscles or weight involved.  It’s mind vs mind.  A match between two opponents of equal skill would not favor one or the other due to physical prowess or strength.  So why can’t everyone compete in an open contest? It’s another message that men and women aren’t on the same level.

Well, with all the posts on the IeSF’s Facebook page and all the backlash on Twitter and Reddit and most social media and the internet at large, As of this morning (Friday July 3, 2014), the IeSF has reversed their position on a men-only championship.  In a release on their site today they publicly changed their tune:
On 2nd of July, 2014, the IeSF’s policy about gender division, which separates the female division and the male division, has been brought into question. The IeSF has listened to the gaming community and has carefully considered their opinions. Upon hearing these concerns, the IeSF convoked an emergency session of the IeSF Board to respond.As a result, IeSF shall have two event categories: “Open for All” events and events that are reserved for women. The events which were initially set aside as the male division will now be open to all genders, and the events which were initially set as the female division will remain as they were. 
The IeSF Board addressed its reason for maintaining events for women, citing the importance of providing female gamers with ample opportunities to compete in e-Sports—currently a male-dominated industry. Female gamers make up half of the world’s gaming population, but only a small percentage of e-Sports competitors are women. The IeSF’s female-only competitions aim to bring more diversity to competitive play by improving the representation of women at these events. Without efforts to improve representation, e-Sports can’t achieve true gender equality. 

Well damn.

Is it the ideal scenario?  No, not really.  I mean don’t get me wrong, I’m very pleased that the main championship is now open to all and that everyone has a chance to play for the title.  But it still classifies a women’s division as a separate entity from the main championship.  Arguments can be made for it along the same data I presented a little ways back up this page, but it’s a band-aid on a much deeper wound.

The problem is a culture that prevents everyone to feel safe and included as part of that culture.  While change – albeit very slow change – is happening, that culture has a long way to go for real intrinsic transformation into a self-policing community where everyone feels welcomed, and more importantly, safe.  And until that’s achieved, more and more of these band aids will have to be applied.  And while yes, they may stop the bleeding for a short time, the underlying cut will still remain.  I wish there were answers for an easy fix, but systemic change is anything but a speedy process.

While the IeSF made a change for the main championship, it took a great amount of internet backlash to do it.  The fact still remains that without input from the masses, they themselves thought a men only championship was a good idea.  So I’ll call this a good step in the right direction, but with a long way to go for the community.

Monday, April 21, 2014

PAX East 2014: Serious Games and This War of Mine

It’s not all about killing bad guys and saving the princess anymore.

When you take a look at media as a whole – books, comics, movies, games – and take a step back to see how they’ve evolved over time, you’d see a pretty interesting evolution.  Over the last few decades look at the changes that we’ve experienced – not only the ability to be immersed into graphically realistic depictions of different environments, but the type of ideas that they can convey to the reader, viewer and player.  Take the graphic novel as an example – once upon a time it wasn’t considered a medium that could convey serious thoughts, then came works like Art Spiegelman’s holocaust survivor story Maus and Joe Sacco’s journalist comic Palestine.  These are only two examples in a number of titles that are more than superheroes and traditional good versus evil.

Games have been a little bit slower to evolve on that front – there’s a field generally referred to as “serious games” out there but a lot of times that focuses on using the platform for interactive learning more than gaming in a traditional sense (… is there even a traditional sense of the word anymore?).  What I’m talking about here though is a little bit different. I’m talking about games that through the very story and gameplay put the player in a position to wrestle with difficult decisions and make them think about more than just what’s on the graphical surface.  Look at Papers Please, for example, a game where the player is an immigration official.  Your job as said official is to decide who is allowed and denied entry past your checkpoint based on information your supervisor has given you.  Simple enough right?  What do you do when a elderly couple can’t come through together because one’s papers are right while the other’s aren’t? Do you let them both through and face a violation that prevents you from feeding your own family?  How do you choose?  There’s a whole other side to the traditional “war games” we see that is represented here in the moral quandaries regular people are put into during hardship.

And that other side, inspired by Papers Please, is where we find This War of Mine.

When you play a lot of big studio titles on the topic of war, you’re going to find a lot of common themes.  First person shooters and real time strategy games are focused on peace through superior firepower.  These games all tell stories from the viewpoints of the commanders, or the soldiers themselves.  This War of Mine on the other hand focuses on everyone else that is still impacted by the conflict, exploring war with the focus shifted away from the soldiers and tanks, and onto the people suffering from the fallout, just trying to survive.

You begin in a besieged house with a group of survivors.  Because of snipers outside, you’re trapped where you are.  Immediately you have to salvage for anything in the house – spare parts, food, wood, medicine – anything that can be used to help your party survive.  These materials can be put together to provide needs for the house – beds for sleeping, drinking water, wound dressings.  At night you can leave the house to salvage at nearby locations to bring back more materials to use the next day.

In  addition to salvaging you also decide who sleeps (on or off a bed) and who stands guard.  The problem is that your backpack is extremely limited, and you have to prioritize what you bring back for the good of the party. Scavengers and guards don’t sleep.  If you haven’t made a way to prepare food then they go hungry, making it easier to get sick and need medicine.  All of the needs of the survivors must be juggled to survive.

Let me give you an example.  During the first night I sent one survivor to scavenge and brought back materials for making beds for proper sleep.  During the night, the house was attacked.  My guard was hurt and the other survivor fell sick.  I didn’t gather enough to be able to collect water for drinking or preparing food. OK, now what?

The next night I have the sick survivor sleep in bed while I send a scavenger out again.  I pick up enough materials to construct a water collector – but that doesn’t leave me enough for picking up medicine.  I made the decision to drop water filters for medicine.  Now she had medicine, but no one got food or water.  I now had 4 hungry and thirsty survivors. 1 was injured. 1 was sick and not getting better.  None of them were rested.  All of them hiding from snipers.  The following morning, my sick survivor succumbed to illness ad died.

All because I had to make a choice between medicine and clean water.

It was a difficult and dark experience to have to go through those kinds of decisions, even if the characters were virtual people on a screen.  And that was 3 days of virtual time (about 30 minutes real time) with me comfortable at a computer with a mouse and keyboard.  I was forced to think about the hell someone in that situation must be in somewhere in the world at this very second.

I got to speak with 11bit’s Pawel Miechowski about the game, who said that while the game has gotten huge positive feedback there’s also been some negative backlash, complaining that games can’t handle serious topics and are for entertainment only.  “I believe that games are perfect for talking about important things,” he says, “because they’re interactive.”  And I totally agree.  It’s the perfect vehicle for expressing thoughts and ideas, and this game forces the player to think.  “Imagine yourself in a city under siege, and your mother is dying of sickness.  How would you treat her?  Would you be willing to kill someone to steal antibiotics to save her?”

To drive the point home Pawel decided not to name the city the game takes place in, to remind people that “it could be your city, your country – it could happen anywhere.  And when it happens it doesn’t matter if you’re American, Indian, Polish, or Russian or whatever, because you’re a human being and you have the same needs.”

To those who say games are no place for tough topics, he says that as developers they feel that like movies, games have grown up.  And the same way directors now make movies about love and hate and deep topics more now than years ago, so too can depth be found in games like This War of Mine.  “It’s natural evolution.”

“Games are 30 years old, most of us have grew up with games and we treat them as a natural way of storytelling.”

Now for those with positive feedback about the game, Pawel did say that many survivors of conflict that are willing to help spread the word about the game, and are very supportive about it because it’s so important to talk about.  He made sure to mention by name former Marine Corpsman John Keyser, who through what he saw during his time in Fallujah became anti-war, and is serving to help Pawel with this game.

“I’d like to send my greetings to John and thank him for his help.”

With the countless number of games glorifying war, in my opinion this is a very important game that through its story reminds us that in war there are no winners.

This War of Mine is being developed for Windows, Mac and Linux and 11bit will have something sometime this year, with a mobile experience coming too.  As Pawel says though, “not a free to play ruined mobile experience with microtransactions.”  It’ll be a pay-once, get it all from A to Z premium experience. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

PAX East 2014: In-Depth with Blizzard

PAX East had a lot of great things to see all over the huge show floor at the Boston Convention Center – enough to confuse a person about which booths to hit first and which games to demo.  Luckily for me, we’re spoiled with shiny media badges, which gave us an extra hour before general admission to roam peacefully and make that decision.  As a dude that has played Warcraft and Diablo games for over a decade, I decided to hit up Blizzard first. Last year’s PAX East being their launch platform for Hearthstone, I was excited to see what they had in store for us this year - and as far as I’m concerned, they didn’t disappoint.  While Blizzard crew was still setting up the last of the demo stations, I settled in to try out World of Warcraft’s upcoming expansion, Warlords of Draenor, and their upcoming free-to-play mashup barn burner of a title, Heroes of the Storm

Warlords of Draenor @ PAX East 2014
World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor

Let me be straight here – what I played was definitely not a complete representation of the game.  The demo was limited, but I’m not going to hold that against them – they had an alpha build, and for those of you that have never worked in software or game testing, an alpha build is early earrrlllyy goins on.  So naturally I wasn’t expecting everything to be in final form.  That’s just how alphas go.  At least they were giving us what they got. The demo allowed players to see all the skins for all of the genders and races (including the updated Alliance models), but restricted player selection to Horde characters only.  It made sense to me really, since the first quest is literally speaking with Durotan in this tweaked timeline, and it wouldn’t exactly be a Gnome carrying that out now would it?  So I made a Blood Elf hunter (deviating from my Night Elven lineage), cranked him as brown as a Blood Elf can get and away I run.  The problem was that whenever I summoned a pet, debug windows came up instead of said pet, and I got good and killed in a sea of mobs despite my best efforts trying to close windows.  That’s ok though. The gameplay (at least as far as I can tell for hunters) is not drastically different at level 90 when you just start out.  BUT if big numbers jumping all over your screen is the life you're about then prepare to make an adjustment. We were equipped in character level 90 greens comparable to Mists of Pandaria endgame gear, but the numbers and damage I was doing was tremendously downsized.  With this expansion they've gotten away from the crazy exponential increase in stat values and damage, meaning I wasn't throwing out six-figure damage with my critical strikes like I'm used to seeing.  It doesn't mean that it takes that much longer to down enemies though - their HP is scaled to match your decreased stats.

Alliance Garrison
Thank the lords of Azeroth for that too.  Right now my hunter is walking around with half a million HP unbuffed, and I get 1000+ agility from just my bow.  My endgame bow in Wrath of the Lich King didn't even break 200.  The numbers now are just getting out of control and more or less have lost all meaning when my 140k DPS is the low number on Recount charts. The big change with Warlords  that everyone’s excited about (and with good reason) is the concept of the garrison – it’s like having your own little Warcraft III style homebase with peasants running back and forth gathering materials for you.  I wasn't allowed to take game footage pictures, but I got some screenshots from the press kit, and as more data is available I'll make sure to get that out to you kids.  I got in on the closed beta, so when I kick that off I'll have some real goods for you.

Heroes of the Storm Alpha Character Select
Heroes of the Storm 

Is there anyone that doesn’t love a good crossover?  How much fun did we have with Super Smash Brothers?  Kingdom Hearts saw Disney and Square-Enix collide.  The Marvel universe squared off against Capcom a number of times behind the controller, and even went head to head with DC Comics on the page before that.  And we love it.  There’s something about different universes coming together that is just pure meta appeal for the geek inside all of us. So what happens then when one company has enough isolated universes to do it within itself?  The answer is Heroes of the Storm – a crossover that pits the heroes (and villains) of the WarcraftStarcraft, and Diablo universes against each other in a good old-fashioned melee. Now you see the thing is this - upon first glance this looks like the MOBA style (multiplayer online battle arena) we’re used to seeing in League of Legends and DOTA.  Do not be fooled though, it’s not.  Well not completely.  I mean it does have the concept of lanes, and you have to take said lanes to crush your foes.  But you don’t have to do a million things to be successful or have fun.  It’s like they stripped out all the annoying parts of the MOBA genre (sorry MOBA fans) and… the only way I can put it really is that it combines that with some old Warcraft III charm, down to unit jokes.

Hero - Baby Murloc Murky
The heroes are split into different types - Warrior, Assassin, Support and Specialist, each bringing a different type of play style into the game.  One of the interesting new heroes they revealed under the Support style was Brightwing the Faerie Dragon.  She has the ability to not only heal but to blink from ally to ally throwing heals anywhere on the map.  With her other skills she can be a pretty complex hero to play.  Tyrael on the other hand is a Warrior class, primarily dealing damage with high defense, having a less complex play style.

... and then there's Murky.  Yes Murky the Murloc is a hero because as the developers put it, "we decided to make a hero that was awful" and one to consider the "Wile E Coyote" of the game.  Murky has almost no health and no attack, but lays an egg before charging in.  When he dies, in a few seconds he will just respawn from the egg - over and over again.  It was absolutely hilarious to see Murky use this method against Diablo and ultimately run him off with a Murloc army.  So how's that for varied play style?  Each hero has his or her own signature attacks to customize it that much further.

Arthas calling in an air strike from Sapphiron
As far as skins and upgrades are concerned, yes there are some for purchase, but there are also some that can be unlocked just by playing a particular hero a lot without a fee, including what they call "ultimate skins."  There's some humor in these too, like having the abomination Stitches in a bikini. I'll let that one sink in for a bit. I'll be looking forward to when I can get my hands on HotS for real.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Science, COSMOS, and that time I met Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Science is a funny thing.  There's been this traditional stereotype about scientists rolling through life with pocket protectors and slide rules, cloaked in a lab coat and hunched over their microscopes.  But over the last few years the subject has picked up a few more fans.  TV shows like Through the Wormhole hosted by Morgan Freeman and great programming on Science Channel and other educational outlets have started to help pull science into the mainstream, by making it more accessible to everyday people.  Even on the local level for me in Philadelphia I see big events like the Philadelphia Science Festival and can easily see the rise in interest this kind of accessibility can bring.

There's a few scientists that specialize in just that - you have guys like Bill Nye (the Science Guy, and the guy that taught me the art of the bow tie) that have spent their lives making sure that science was accessible and fun for kids, starting from his eponymous show in the 90's to his cemented place in today's geek culture.  In the same vein, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has done the same thing - in addition to running the show at the Hayden Planetarium he's done the late night circuit many times, payed visits to Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Report, and even hangs out with Philadelphia's morning radio DJ's Preston and Steve on WMMR from time to time.  Oh he writes books too.

And unless you've been living in a geek vacuum over the last few months, you'll see he's now part of a project far more ambitious than guesting on the late night tour.  He's the host of a new series on FOX called COSMOS, premiering this weekend.  The show is a new take on Dr. Carl Sagan's classic series of lectures from the early 1980’s.  Dr. Tyson's teamed up with some serious names - Brannon Braga, Mitchell Cannold, and Ann Druyan - to make an updated version of our favorite televised class on space and time.

The best part was that I got to talk to them about it.

See back in October (yeah I know it was a ways back) I got to meet the COSMOS crew at New York Comic Con, and talk to them about the vision and the motivation behind the series re-launch.  The first round was with Cannold and Braga.  Braga described the project as a huge undertaking, with every episode tackling “some sort of massive subject matter” with a varied palette of special effects, live action, and even animated sequences.  While the show does feature original content, there will still be a number of homages to Carl Sagan’s original vision – for example fans of the original series will be happy to know that the Cosmic Calendar is still a mainstay in this new edition.

One of the more surprising topics discussed was the role of Seth MacFarlane (yes, the same Family Guy Seth MacFarlane) who is one of the driving forces behind the show. Cannold put the collaborative efforts best, and it might surprise those of you who classify MacFarlane with only animated comedy. “Don’t underestimate Seth MacFarlane - this man is a DaVinci.  Among other things, he happens to be a brilliant science geek.”  The team in fact turned down other studios first in favor of him as someone who could drive the process and execute while respecting the process. Cannold went on “he became our Godfather, champion, emissary at FOX and since then has made an enormous contribution.”  These contributions included introducing Braga to the crew, who brings scores of experience having written and produced for the Star Trek franchise since The Next Generation as well as other hits like 24.

Next up was Ann Druyan and the man himself, Dr. Tyson.  Druyan was the writer of the original COSMOS with Dr. Sagan (and wife of the good doctor as well).  Tyson started off describing Carl Sagan’s shoes as “awesome shoes to fill,” and how if he tried to fill them he’d just fail, following it up with “But I could be a really good version of myself.”  The series, according to him, isn’t just an “homage to Carl” but something people can follow him into the future by watching.  Druyan talked about how special it was working with Tyson, having known him for so long with Carl.  “It was not just that Neil has the science and the ability to connect, but it’s also true that Carl reached out to Neil when he was a 17 year old kid in the Bronx.”  And it’s true – Dr. Sagan took Tyson under his wing from an early age and he became very close with his family.  It was great hearing her speak about the project with such passion and love.

After talking about COSMOS I got to talk to Dr. Tyson about a bunch of random things like a scientific basis for astrology and science skewed by cognitive bias - he actually took the time well past the press event to shoot the breeze with me.  He is 100% the awesome science rockstar we all see on television, with a huge personality to match that sciencey mind of his.  While talking cognitive bias we got to the topic of dowsing rods – you know, using sticks to find water like I’m sure you’ve seen on TV.  He says to me, “If you give anyone a dowsing rod and tell them to find water, they will, pretty much 100% of the time.  And you know why?”  At this point he leans in a little closer to me and continues – “Because there’s water fucking everywhere!  It’s called the water table!”  Comedy and science – an excellent combination.

Fast forward a few months back to New York City and I’m at the American Museum of Natural History at the world premiere event of the show, which lived up to every promise that was made about it (as you can see, the line to get in was crazy long and speaks to Dr. Tyson's fanbase). The first episode introduced the cosmic calendar and the ship of the imagination, and let me tell you, Dr. Tyson is an absolute natural hosting and narrating this production.  The content, varying between special effects to live action film of Dr. Tyson to an animated short about Giordiano Bruno all blend exceptionally well together and make for not only education and information accessible to the masses, but a truly enjoyable program that brings science to the people.

Make sure you catch COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey, which premieres this Sunday night at 9pm on FOX.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

OMAHA: a study in football


The phrase has been uttered countless times by Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning over his record breaking season this year.  When asked what Omaha meant, he explained to the press that it could be anything depending on a number of variables about the game that was being played at the time.  After the embarrassing end of the first half of tonight's Super Bowl against the Seattle Seahawks, it occurred to me that it was a word conspicuously absent from the first thirty minutes of play.  So since we have the wonder that is the internet, I decided to look up some numbers and see what was what in the postseason. A coincidence? Or something more?

I dunno kids... I'm just sayin' though